Responding to the Campus Mob
The free speech crisis at Stanford Law School is a reminder of why Christians cannot afford to abandon our nation’s elite universities. If our future leaders disavow a culture of free speech, we will no longer have a free nation.
The Stanford drama began when federal appellate judge Kyle Duncan encountered a wave of vitriol from students while trying to deliver a guest lecture on campus. The hostile obscenities came nonstop. As for the students who invited Judge Duncan, their pictures were plastered on walls in an effort to intimidate them.
What came next was even more stunning. Tirien Steinbach—the school’s associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion—openly supported the disruption. Taking the podium, she proceeded to smear Judge Duncan, accusing him of causing “harm,” “pain,” and “disenfranchisement” through his legal work. She even suggested that he reconsider whether his speech was worth giving. The whole episode was an embarrassment for the nation’s second-ranked law school and an injustice to Judge Duncan and the students who invited him—students whom Steinbach should have been serving as well.
Since then, Stanford has placed Steinbach on leave for her role in the incident. Law school dean Jenny Martinez announced this decision on March 22 in a 10-page memo. In it, she concluded that Steinbach had failed to enforce the school’s policy against disrupting speakers, and that her attempt to chill Judge Duncan’s speech was at odds with the school’s commitment to academic freedom. Noticeably absent, however, was any move to discipline the students who fomented the mob against Judge Duncan. Instead, it seems her plan is to require all students (including the conservatives who did nothing wrong) to undergo a half day of mandatory training on free speech.
Many Americans have watched in dismay as free speech on many campuses has given way to mob intimidation. I encountered this hostility firsthand when visiting Yale Law School about a year ago. Ironically, I was there to participate with a progressive humanist on a panel in which we hoped to promote free speech while modeling bipartisan civility. The unhinged outbursts and threats that erupted from more than 100 protesters disrupted the event, and we were forced to leave with a police escort. Unfortunately, Yale’s leaders initially misrepresented what happened and never had the courage to condemn the students’ intimidating behavior. Free speech suffered a major defeat.
At the heart of free speech is the recognition that each person is hardwired for truth, and that we all have the right to seek it, share it, and debate it. This goes to the very heart of what it means to be created in God’s image. Our words are powerful. They can persuade, challenge, shed light on truth, and change the course of history. This means speech is also a threat to those who would try to control society. As Frederick Douglass observed, “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power.”
Law schools have a special duty to preserve a culture of free speech that is conducive to a free society. These are training grounds for our nation’s future leaders, and the culture that reigns on campus today will inevitably shape our culture tomorrow. Moreover, law schools have long prided themselves on defending the rule of law and minority views. If diverse views are no longer protected at these institutions, it’s hard to see how a culture of free speech will long be able to endure.
Some Christians may be tempted to retreat from these hostile spaces into more comfortable corners of society. But this would be a mistake. After the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of the 1920s, conservative Protestants largely vacated the public square, leaving others to shape the culture. This was a failure to be salt and light to our society. Instead of repeating that mistake, Christians who find themselves with opportunities to speak on secular campuses should take heart and lean into the wind—not as renegades, but as missionaries.
Our culture is confused and even rebelling against certain truths of the created order: truths about gender, sexuality, and what defines us as human beings made in God’s image. In Romans 1 fashion, our society is exchanging these truths for lies and plugging its ears at claims to the contrary. But the thing about lies is that they never come through. As many gender detransitioners have tragically found, lies eventually crash on the rocks of reality, leaving people broken, hurt, and devastated.
Truth has the power to set people free, and speaking it in love is a ministry of love. As we contend for the right to speak the truth—especially the truths that some don’t want to hear—we must understand that we are engaged in a spiritual contest. We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Our unseen foe seeks to smother light and keep the world in bondage, but our God declares liberty to the captives. May he give each of us the strength and words to be his voice in dark places.